After the rousing success of my NL West preview I have returned to give you my non-insightful, albeit pithy, appraisal of the NL Central.
1. Milwaukee Brewers- I was going to put the Cubs here but than I thought to myself, "Screw it. It's not like anyone is reading this crap anyway." So I'm going with the lovable Brew Crew (I don't think I have ever met anyone who dislikes the Brewers). Although I don't expect Prince Fielder to hit 50 bombs again he still will be a force (say 40-45 dingers). I feel the same way towards last years NL Rookie of the Year, the new Hebrew Hammer, Ryan Braun, who hit like 35 HR in 100 or so games. I think Braun will be good but I don't see more than 30 HR on the season. I do expect a lot from vastly underrated second baseman Rickie Weeks (check out his walk totals and ignore that aberration of a batting average from last year ) and OF Corey Hart. This team is going to hit a lot of homeruns but it's pitching will win it the division crown. Olympic gold medalist Ben Sheets will finally stay healthy and anchor an average, but deep and effective, staff. The Brewers' starters may be the best in the division top to bottom, although that is much more an indictment of the rest of the NL Central's pitchers than praise of Milwaukee's. The one question mark is the bullpen where Eric Gagne will try to close games. Gagne joining an already mediocre bullpen in homerun-happy Miller Park is could be like driving an oil tanker into a burning building.
2. Chicago Cubs- I think the Cubs will be very close to the Brewers but I see them either A). having a 3-15 stretch in August or B). never getting a prolonged hot streak going and ending up with 80 wins. Either way I think the Brewers have them beat. There lineup is very good with Alfonso Soriano as its centerpiece but there are a number of question marks such as, will Derrek Lee regain his 2005 form, can Kosuke Fukodome be effective in America, will Felix Pie and Geovany Soto be as good as hyped? These questions linger. There starters are OK; Carlos Zambrano is good, no doubt, and so is Rich Hill but I think Jason Marquis is going to suck. The bullpen is good but I'm not sure Carlos Marmol is a closer. Anyway their biggest issue is chemistry: I don't know if the team will continue to respond to Lou Pinnela and Zambrano is a jerk/headcase. Anyway a disappointing second-place finish seems about right for the Cubbies, although they may, but probably won't, compete for the wild-card.
3. St. Louis Cardinals- The Cards have the most players named in the Mitchell Report which unfortunately is not a statistic. Besides an overwhelming amount of juicers the Cardinals have one of the best hitters in baseball, Albert Pujols. Unfortunately he has a tear in his elbow and may miss a bunch of time this season. Besides him their offense is decent--I expect good things from Rick Ankiel (admitted HGH user), Chris Duncan (probable HGH user) and Troy Glaus (voted most likely to use HGH by the 1999 Anaheim Angels, although I don't know if he actually ever did). Their pitching stinks although youngster Adam Wainwright could have a good year.
4. Houston Astros- I think the 'Stros could finish higher and maybe even win the division. They have a great offense with Lance Berkman, Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee. However after Roy Oswalt their starters absolutely suck (Wandy Rodriguez is probably their No. 2, are you kidding me?) Also hurting Houston's chances is the fact that Toronto passed them in the all-important category of "5-11, 180 lbs White Guys Who Are Impossible to Tell Apart on the Diamond." (Yeah, that's right, I can't distinguish most white ball players from another. Does that make me racist? Probably.)
5. Cincinnati Reds- I like the Reds this year unfortunately they're not very good. New manager Dusty Baker is going to have Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo throw a combined 500 innings, which will be a problem down the road but I think both will have good years. The offense is pretty decent and hinges on how rookie first baseman Joey Votto does and if fellow rookie Jay Bruce makes the club and makes an impact. Pencil Adam Dunn in for 40 dingers and Ken Griffey Jr. for 110 games played.
6. Pittsburgh Pirates- I have no beef with Pittsburgh (they are one of two non-Red Sox teams whose hat I own (KC Royals is the other). I like former Sox farm hand Freddy Sanchez, unfortunately nobody values a .320 batting average with zero power and low OBP anymore. Sweet Swingin' Adam LaRoche has seen better days and their best pitcher, Ian Snell, is crazy. Still they have good young pitching with Snell and Tom Gorzelanny and it could be even better if Zach Duke gets his head out of his ass. Anyway this team will avoid 100 loses I think, but just barely.
Quick note about the NL Central: For some reason this division has more teams, six, than any other division. Now this would make sense if there were 31 teams in the majors but, alas, there are only 30. So this means that there is a division with only 4 teams, the AL West. Well, you say, "Doug, the MLB must not have wanted to make a team switch from one league to another because of the disadvantages that would pose." And I would say, "Yeah, you're right, good point." Except that the Brewers were originally in the AL and were moved to the NL in 1997. Bottom line is that the MLB has decided the best way to evenly divide 30 teams six ways is 5-5-5-5-6-4. One final point: This puts the teams in the NL Central at a disadvantage, and teams in the AL West at a corresponding advantage, because they have more/less teams vying for the division title, and playoff spot. Sports writers are shortsightedly bitching about the unfairness of the NBA playoffs giving 8 playoff spots to each conference regardless of record and ignoring this much more glaring, and permanent, problem. (My solution: Move the Brewers to the AL West. They're not that much further east than the Rangers). UPDATE: I just read that the reason for the NL having 16 and AL having 14 teams is because they want each league to be divisible by 2, to quote Wikipedia, "to continue primarily intraleague play." This doesn't make sense to me. While we're here this is my suggestion for realignment: eliminate two teams (let's say the Marlins and the Devil Rays), move the Brewers to the AL, and have two divisions of seven teams in each league. Winners of each division play in the A/NLCS for the pennant, like 20 years ago (you could also have each league have 2 wild cards and keep the current playoff format).
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